This post has been updated.
Fridoon Rawshan Nehad’s family always feared that he would die a tragic death.
After Nehad’s Afghan military unit went missing during the country’s wars in the 1980s, Nehad’s father checked the lists of dead at hospitals. When the family discovered that mujahedeen rebels had captured Nehad, his mother went into enemy territory to rescue him. Soon after, Nehad’s parents smuggled him out of Afghanistan with the rest of his family following months later.
About a decade ago, Nehad and his family reunited in the United States. But his parents and sisters soon discovered a new threat. Nehad was mentally ill and his violent outbursts had at times threatened his immigration status. Nehad’s sister, Benazeer Roshan, worried he’d be deported back to Afghanistan and killed by the Taliban because of his mental illness.
“But never in America,” Roshan told me.
But it did happen here. Early in the morning on April 30, San Diego police officer Neal Browder shot and killed Nehad while he was having a manic episode in a Midway District alleyway. Browder was responding to a 911 call of a knife-wielding man threatening people. Nehad turned out to be unarmed.
The entire incident was caught on surveillance video, but for months San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer, the City Council, Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman and District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis refused to release the footage.
Last week, Dumanis made the video and other selected evidence from the case public after a federal court judge cleared the way for their release.
This is what you need to know about the case and why future police-involved shootings in San Diego might play out differently.
The video of the shooting is graphic – and troubling.
The video shows Browder arriving at the alleyway, exiting his police car and then quickly shooting Nehad, who was 42. Nehad was walking toward the officer, but was slowing his pace and might have even stopped entirely before he was killed.
Dumanis released an edited version of the video, adding police radio traffic from the incident that communicated that Nehad had a knife. Nehad was holding a pen. The shooting starts around the 4-minute, 20-second mark.
Attorneys for Nehad’s family, which has filed a $20 million wrongful death lawsuit against the city, later released the unedited video. It has no audio and Browder is easier to see in this version.
This video is the only one we’re aware of that captures the entire incident.
There’s a very high bar when it comes to charging police officers for on-duty shootings. Browder wasn’t charged.
Longstanding U.S. Supreme Court precedent lays out clear reasons for when police shootings are justified:
Law enforcement officers can use deadly force if they believe there’s an imminent threat of deadly force against them or someone else. Crucially, the standard is taken from what a so-called “reasonable officer” would believe at the time, not with the benefit of hindsight. In this case, for instance, it matters less that Nehad didn’t end up having a knife and more whether a reasonable officer in the same position as Browder would think Nehad had one.
Last month, Dumanis announced that she would not prosecute Browder. In her 15-page letter describing her decision, Dumanis said it was reasonable for Browder to believe Nehad was an imminent threat. Indeed, her presentation last week showed that Browder had every reason to assume he was walking into an incident involving a man armed with a knife.
That said, the video provides plenty of evidence that things didn’t have to turn out the way they did.
Browder did not turn on the overhead lights on his vehicle when entering the alleyway, and it’s unclear from the video whether Nehad even knew he was approaching a cop. Browder got out of the car and put no barrier between himself and Nehad – he closed his car door, which could have blocked Nehad’s path. It takes only about five seconds from when Browder gets out of his car until he shoots. And again, Nehad was at least slowing his pace before Browder shot him.
“I think that no person in the world, in the entire universe, can see that video and come to the conclusion that my brother was attacking a police officer,” said Roshan, Nehad’s sister.
There are other inquiries into the shooting. The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating the incident. An internal SDPD investigation is nearing completion – though Browder has been back patrolling the streets since June. The wrongful death lawsuit filed by Nehad’s family is ongoing.
It took months for the video to come out because the mayor, City Council, police chief and DA all fought its release. That might change.
San Diego was one of the first big cities in the country to outfit its police officers with body cameras, and at the time police officials indicated the footage would be used for transparency purposes.
But soon after the department got them, Zimmerman decided that no videos would be released outside of a courtroom except in riot-like situations. She hasn’t released any.
In this case, Browder did not turn on his body camera before the shooting. There’s no indication Browder was disciplined for that, but Zimmerman has since changed department policy to require officers to turn on their cameras prior to arriving at a scene.
When surveillance footage of the shooting was discovered, the city tried to keep it under wraps as well. Nehad’s sister said a homicide sergeant told her police would only give them the video if the family filed a lawsuit. Even after that, the family had to agree to keep the footage secret once they received it. Over the summer, an employee of the business that owned the surveillance camera filed a sworn declaration saying that he saw the video at least 20 times and that he believed the shooting was unprovoked.
Soon after, Voice of San Diego and other local media outlets asked a federal judge to allow the family to release the video.
The city and district attorney did not want the video to come out. Zimmerman told the court that she feared riots in the streets and attacks against police officers if it were released. Faulconer, the majority of the City Council and Dumanis supported her view.
U.S. District Judge William Q. Hayes dismissed those arguments and cleared the way for the video’s release earlier this month. Dumanis decided to make the video public two days before the family would have been allowed to, per the judge’s order.
The court decision has prompted Dumanis and other high-ranking law enforcement officials to reassess their restrictive policies on releasing police video footage. Dumanis said she, Zimmerman, Sheriff Bill Gore and U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy are planning to meet to revise the region’s policies and come up with new standards in the next three months.
A spokesman for Faulconer said the mayor supported the law enforcement task force on the issue. Unlike mayors in other big cities with disputed police shootings, Faulconer has largely been absent from this debate.
The district attorney selectively released evidence from the shooting, and omitted evidence that put the officer in a bad light.
Dumanis said she was pre-empting the judge’s timeline for releasing the video because she believed putting out the footage by itself would have been irresponsible.
“The video in and of itself does not tell the complete story and I think it’s important for the public to see, in evaluating that, the complete picture of what happened,” Dumanis said at her press conference.
But her presentation did not provide the full picture of all the significant evidence from the case – in fact, it left out information that didn’t fit her narrative. Instead, she released a carefully curated set of evidence designed to support her decision that the shooting was justified and that Browder acted compassionately afterward.
Most strangely at the press conference, Dumanis played an unrelated video of an unidentified man demonstrating how to use a butterfly knife. She said the demonstration showed how the officer might have mistaken Nehad’s pen for a knife.
If that video was relevant to the case, certainly Browder’s statements to homicide investigators were as well. But Dumanis said she wasn’t releasing the officer’s interview because she wasn’t going to make everything public.
The next day, Nehad’s family released Browder’s statement. In his initial interview with investigators a few hours after the shooting, Browder said he didn’t see any weapons on Nehad. At that point, Browder’s attorney shut down the interview.
Five days later, and after he was allowed to view the surveillance video, Browder was interviewed again. At that point, he said he recalled Nehad having a metal object in his hand and he feared that he was going to get stabbed.
In the later interview, Browder also said he didn’t recall saying anything prior to shooting Nehad because the incident unfolded too quickly. (Witnesses at the scene recall Browder instructing Nehad to drop what was in his hand or stop, according to Dumanis.)
If last week’s press conference was any indication, we’ll see more videos of disputed police-involved shootings released publicly, which is a win for transparency. But the district attorney’s decision to leave out evidence contrary to her narrative also shows that future presentations still might not provide a complete picture of what happened.
Update: A day after this story published, a spokesman for Faulconer said the mayor supported the law enforcement task force to review police video disclosure policies. We updated the story to reflect that.